Reviewed by Christopher E. Smith, School of Criminal Justice, Michigan State University. Email: smithc28 [at] msu.edu.
Dramatic events often define written history. The military battle, the revolt, the dynamic leader, the bold decision or shocking event that produces reverberating repercussions – these are the episodes that stand as monumental mileposts to guide the journeys through history that we learn and teach and remember. For the history of racial discrimination and civil rights in the mid-twentieth century, a list of such mileposts leaps instantly to mind: BROWN v. BOARD OF EDUCATION; Montgomery bus boycott; Little Rock Nine; Martin Luther King, Jr.; Emmett Till; and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Our discussions and understandings of the causes and effects of history can lose a sense of detail and complexity as we focus on the mileposts, especially as we move farther away in time from the actual people and events. In the GHOST OF JIM CROW, Anders Walker turns our attention back to the fine details of the civil rights movement and argues that insufficient attention has been paid to the role of Southern “moderates” and their carefully calculated legal and political strategies as significant impediments to desegregation and the effectuation of civil rights for African Americans.
Walker, a legal scholar and historian, focuses on the actions of three Southern governors: J.P. Coleman of Mississippi, Luther Hodges of North Carolina, and LeRoy Collins of Florida. All three gained reputations as relative moderates because, unlike several of their regional gubernatorial peers, they did not assume the defiant, public stance of “standing in schoolhouse door” to overtly block desegregation efforts. Instead, they adopted a variety of legal and political strategies to subvert the perceived intent of BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION as they pursued their thoroughgoing commitment to the maintenance of racial segregation. Moreover, due to their reputations for moderation and the actions of Lyndon Johnson, all three governors subsequently gained important federal positions through which they could, to varying degrees, use new powers to affect the civil rights movement and thwart efforts to combat racial discrimination. Coleman was appointed to the federal bench as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Hodges became Secretary of Commerce and Collins, in what Walker describes as an especially pivotal role, became director of the Community Relations Service, the federal agency responsible for mediation efforts between civil rights activists and local government officials. Walker’s examination of the governors’ activities in their federal positions provides especially illuminating and [*16] thought-provoking material about the issue of the actual impact of federal action on civil rights efforts.
In separate chapters on each of the three governors, Walker provides detailed descriptions of strategies and actions, including the extent to which these governors sought to emulate each other and shared information and advice. Their legal approaches used “strategic constitutionalism” as they sought to provide superficial compliance with BROWN while developing legal rationales for the maintenance of racial segregation. For example, rather than overtly resist or deny the legitimacy of BROWN, they sought to change their states’ laws in order to end race-based pupil assignment. At the same time, however, they instituted alternative assignment criteria that would maintain racial segregation. Capitalizing on the Warren Court’s use of social consequences-based evidence, as represented in Kenneth Clark’s “doll study,” they sought to generate “evidence” that African Americans suffered from deficiencies in “morality” – as evidenced by their numbers of out-of-wedlock children, hygiene, welfare dependency, and other attributes. As a result, they argued that African Americans were not yet ready for integration and implied that premature integration would harm white students through exposure to these social attributes. Coleman, in particular, in his later service as a judge on the Fifth Circuit, was able to refine his legal strategies to thwart civil rights efforts through his “ability to reframe resistance to civil rights in racially neutral, constitutional terms, something that he had begun to do while governor in the 1950s” (p.151).
These governors also undertook a variety of political efforts to defuse the push for desegregation. They looked for African Americans who would be willing to serve on state commissions and other advisory bodies that were intent on finding ways to maintain segregation. It was not too difficult to find some prominent, willing partners in the African American community among leaders of all-black institutions whose positions and authority might disappear in an integrated society. The governors could use these individuals to help them convey the notion that African Americans actually preferred segregation and, indeed, these governors actually believed that to be true. They also sought to offer inducements to African Americans to voluntarily choose to stay in segregated schools, such as offers of educational resources for separate institutions. However, they continually discovered that many African Americans adamantly opposed segregation and could not be so easily co-opted.
The governors also worked very hard to suppress the reactionary inclinations of the Ku Klux Klan and other extremist opponents of civil rights, including local law enforcement officials, who were inclined to use dramatic confrontations and violence as a means to thwart civil rights activists. These governors recognized that confrontations and violence drew attention from national new media, increased enforcement pressures from the federal government, and reinforced the worst images of white Southerners that affected public opinion elsewhere in the country. Thus the governors tried to increase the size and authority of state police forces under gubernatorial control as a means to [*17] reduce local sheriffs’ and police chiefs’ roles in and responsibility over law enforcement and order maintenance. As Walker notes, the efforts to centralize state governmental authority is an aspect of anti-civil rights efforts that has received little attention from scholars.
These three governors gained reputations as “moderates” because they did not advocate confrontations or orchestrate violence. In fact, they recognized that civil rights activists may have wished to trigger violent white attacks against peaceful marchers as a means to generate swifter and stronger federal government actions against segregation and discrimination. Thus they sought to prevent any such confrontations, not as means to prevent violence per se, but as a means to limit national attention to the continuation of racial discrimination in the South. One of Walker’s central points is that their success in earning reputations as relative moderates by virtue of choosing legal and political strategies should not obscure the recognition that these governors were thoroughly committed to the maintenance of racial segregation and made concerted efforts to thwart the civil rights aspirations of African Americans. More importantly, they actually succeeded in impeding civil rights progress because they chose sophisticated, non-violent strategies that tended to provide false reassurance to federal officials that progress was, in fact, being made. Walker argues that these “moderates” actually created the most significant impediments to civil rights progress and that they managed to perpetuate and spread various impediments when they moved from their statehouses and into the Johnson administration in Washington, D.C. For example, Walker argues that LeRoy Collins’s role as the federal mediator seeking to prevent violence in Martin Luther King’s second Selma march – a role in which he persuaded Alabama law enforcement officials to pledge not to repeat their violent attack on civil rights marchers and then used that pledge to push King to limit the march to a symbolic arrival at the Edmund Pettis Bridge rather than continue the march to Montgomery – ultimately undercut King’s objectives:
Yet, by encouraging King to abandon his plan for the march, Collins was also reducing the possibility that the protest might incite a violent response – precisely the factor that had made the first march such a success. While Collins appeared to be helping the movement by reducing the chance of violence, he was actually hurting the movement by ensuring peace. Without the shock of violence, popular support would not be mobilized behind federal legislation. (p.139)Walker cannot claim that all of the details that he provides were not previously known. Indeed, he notes that when Coleman was nominated for the federal bench, Congressman John Conyers of Michigan testified that Coleman was “a ‘calculated legal technician’ who had manipulated ‘the judicial process in order to protect a racist social order’ in Mississippi” (p.141). Thus, while there is an awareness about some of the legal and political strategies undertaken by so-called Southern moderates, Walker provides new details about these strategies. He also provides new insights on how these governors emulated and communicated with each other. In addition, he illuminates the links between the governors’ actions [*18] within their states and their later actions as federal officials that impeded civil rights progress. Overall, he builds a strong case for recognizing scholars’ undervaluation of the significance of Southern moderates’ anti-civil rights efforts.
Walker used archival research to piece together the details of the strategies of and cooperation between these governors. The book provides very thorough citations to sources so that interested scholars can explore further any new details about the civil rights era that appear in the book. More importantly, he casts the significance of his study as being of direct interest to political scientists and legal scholars who examine law, policy, and social change:
By recovering this resistance [by moderates], we learn….[that] rather than the “hollow hope” that some historians have come to view it as, BROWN reemerges as an important evolutionary decision that pushed the South to curtail localized policing, rein in vigilante violence, expand welfare technologies, and modernize family law. (p.5).He also presents his study as showing “how state leaders embraced a type of strategic constitutionalism that expands our understanding of how Supreme Court decisions influence state law” (p.5) as well as how the modernization of aspects of the South’s legal system did not necessarily advance racial equality. Walker is correct in highlighting these intriguing and important issues, and the evidence he presents to support these themes is illuminating and thought-provoking. One might wish that the book’s conclusion had provided a more extensive discussion of these themes. However, the evidence and themes are present as threads throughout the book so that interested scholars will find themselves thinking deeply about whether and how Walker’s study affects their own understanding of the civil rights era. After reading THE GHOST OF JIM CROW, it is likely that many of us will point our students to additional, less-recognized mileposts of history as we lead them through a journey of understanding concerning the complexity of the civil rights struggle in the South.
© Copyright 2010 by the author, Christopher E. Smith.